In The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde wrote that those “who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming,” while those “who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are cultivated. For these there is hope.”
At some point, young Marina Ann Hantzis read these words by Oscar Wilde, a man considered to be little more than a pornographer by some of his contemporary critics. I believe it’s time to consider what can be gleaned from the fact that when Marina needed a pseudonym, she adopted the surname of Wilde’s most famous fictional hedonist.
Dorian Grey, the eponymous lead of Wilde’s only published novel, is freed to live a reckless life by the powers of a supernatural portrait. Disregarding everything but his own vanity and pleasure, Dorian maintains his physical beauty while his painting ages to reflect the ravages of his excesses upon his soul. Grey escapes the consequences of his actions, but only for a time. What will be the ending of Marina’s story?
This story begins in North Highlands, CA, where Marina Hantzis was enrolled at Highlands High School, where she claims to have earned a solid 3.8 GPA before being home schooled. It’s not clear whether Marina graduated high school, but she did attend acting classes and joined a Sacramento theatre group. She was drawn to experimental theatre and film, performing in the never released 2005 movie Love Thieves, and the film Unknown Pleasures, which she co-wrote.
Her interest in film took this beautiful young thing in a direction many find shocking. In May 2006, 18 year old Marina Hantzis took the moniker Sasha Grey and began acting in pornographic films. By November, Los Angeles magazine was heralding her as a fast rising star in the adult film industry, calling Sasha Grey the next Jenna Jameson. Shows like Tyra and The Insider eventually anointed Sasha the poster child for teenage porn stars, inviting her on to defend her involvement in the world of adult entertainment.
And defend it she did, although her opponents pulled out all the expected artillery — Sasha Grey reported that Tyra’s staff changed her hair and makeup to make her appear younger; The Insider decided that the best person to help Sasha Grey confront her inner demons was Dr. 90210; all that was missing was for Montel to send her to bootcamp. The message of these shows was simple: silly girl is being exploited by the evil, sexist porn industry for the entertainment of a mindless, masturbating mass of male patrons. Sasha Grey, however, was refreshingly off-point. She presented herself as a bright young woman who made an educated, personal decision to pursue a career in the industry, casually diffusing her critics’ shots.
Oscar Wilde might have pondered with whom the corruption in this dynamic really rests. Watching these shows, a viewer would be right to wonder whether Sasha is being exploited — but not by the adult entertainment industry. Fans of daytime drivel seem to find enjoyment in the ugly meanings behind beautiful things. These salacious talk shows are like pornography for the ignorant and judgmental, except pornography offers its performers accolades absent for guests of daytime drivel.
In the past two years, the adult industry awarded Sasha Grey for her work in films like Babysitters and Fuck Slaves, and including the coveted AVN award for Female Performer of the Year, the porn equivalent of a Best Actress Oscar.
Despite my strong interest in attractive women, I’m not enough of a porn connoisseur to appreciate the nuances of Sasha Grey’s performances, but I have no doubt there is something there. Sasha Grey is one currently of the most bankable names in the adult industry, and even stars in the budgeted $8 million Pirates 2, the most expensive pornographic film ever produced. Yet success in the porn industry is measured not only by awards and budgets, but also by achieving a certain amount of fame outside the world of money shots and girl-on-girl action.
Successfully crossing over into mainstream entertainment has been tricky for adult entertainers in the past. When it was revealed almost all of Traci Lords’ work was done as a minor, the resulting headlines ensured she was practically a household name, which lead to small roles on television and in movies. Jenna Jamison, probably the most famous of contemporary porn actresses, has also appeared in the occasional mainstream film, but never in anything that would require real acting talent. She did manage, however, to propel her popularity into a brand name, writing a best-selling book and creating a multimillion dollar business.
While porn stars like Tracy Lords and Jenna Jamison managed to get their names known, it’s impossible to ignore their notorious edge. It seems like every adult actress in the past decade has tried to brand herself enough to launch her own line of adult products, adult films, and even strip clubs. But few truly break through to the mainstream in a lasting way.
There is no doubt that Sasha Grey is becoming a brand, she already has her own adult products rolling out for those interested in experiencing Sasha Grey via latex. But is Sasha about to go beyond the accomplishments of Jenna Jamison and other big-brand porn stars?
Sasha at least was smart enough to try meeting the mainstream halfway. In 2007, she worked with Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro and starred in his adult film directorial debut, Broken. The film was not your typical porn, but much of Grey’s work is not typical. Films like The Awakening of Sasha Grey, which features a sex scene with a six foot imaginary teddy bear, are not your father’s pornos. Fans of the genre comment on her edginess, as much of her adult work could be considered experimental film, if not sold next to other titles like Sasha Grey’s Anatomy.
Grey has also been featured in a video by the Smashing Pumpkins, on the popular Internet show PG Porn, and in the cheesy horror film Smash Cut. She is even featured in this months Rolling Stone.
Potentially the biggest news in Sasha Grey’s career came when Steven Soderbergh cast her to star in his new film, The Girlfriend Experience. While this small budget film is more akin to Bubble than Ocean’s 11 or Traffic, it is still an opportunity for which many actresses would drown their siblings. And it could be a chance for Sasha to earn the creditability needed to break away from adult films and move into the mainstream.
And so far, Sasha is doing well. “She’s really good, totally fearless, very smart,” says Soderbergh. “It certainly didn’t seem like there was anything I could suggest that she couldn’t handle.”
But Sasha is constant contradiction. He latest blog post on her MySpace page contains a picture of Obama, right above a picture of Sasha having a mold made of her ass for a sex toy. Under that, photos from her trip to MOMA. It’s hard to say for certain if Sasha really wants to move beyond the adult industry. While she certainly has the chance to make the transition, Sasha seems to embrace her adult film career. Will she decide to become Marina Hantzis again, and pursue a mainstream acting career, or has that shipped sailed? Or will she take another direction entirely?
Sasha manages her own career, and presumably is ready manage the career of others, through her own agency, LA Factory Girls, a brand name clearly inspired by Warhol. It could be that Sasha’s interest in experimental film may be strong enough to keep her out of mainstream entertainment. Clearly, starring in a low budget Steven Soderbergh film is different from being the new Kate Hudson, starring in rom-coms meant for the same insipid audience that watches Tyra Banks and The Insider.
Call Sasha Grey what you will, there is no doubt that her talent has been recognized by people who know talent. All that remains to be seen is the path she decides to take, and of course whether the lifestyle of Sasha Grey will effect Marina Ann Hantzis. Which of her identities will come to reflect the consequences of her choices? Or will the picture of Sasha Grey finally reveal to us our own corruption as a society that is unable to admire the beautiful meanings in beautiful things?
Time has redeemed Oscar Wilde’s reputation, turning him from a degenerate pornographer into the literary master he deserves to be. Only time will show us if the story of Marina Ann Hantzis garners a similarly happy ending. I believe for Sasha Grey, there is hope.
Note: There has been some controversy over whether Sasha Grey’s real name should be used online. My decision to use her real name was predicated by its appearance on IMDB and other sources.